Kathleen Wynne’s New Year’s Resolution

I remember my father pulling into the Canadian Tire gas bar, and before he came to a stop, an attendant was at his window asking if he wanted ‘regular’ or ‘high-test’.  Without any more conversation, the windows of his car were cleaned and the oil level checked.  If memory serves, gas was about $0.35 a gallon, and a fill-up could cost about $2.50.

Today, we ask ourselves if we want to endure standing in the cold to pump our own fuel, and brave more of the nasty winter winds to clean our own windshield.  Cars don’t consume oil like they used to, even though we should still check the level at every fill-up.  Fuel, up until a few short weeks ago, was $1.30 per litre, and to fill the tank in my moderately sized sport utility cross-over vehicle, was $80.00

Fuel prices have now fallen to a wallet-relieving level of below $1.00 per litre.  This is especially welcome for commuters whose transit choices mean either a 30 minute drive or 90 minute public transit commute.  People need to drive.  Our transit system, despite the dedication of the operators and management, especially of the TTC, makes do with very little, and for this they should be applauded rather than pilloried.

In the coming months, we will witness the bottom falling out of hybrid and fully electric vehicle sales.  Time and time again, when there is short-term relief at the pumps, full-size truck and sport-utility sales go up, and fuel-saving vehicle sales go into the toilet.

Greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.  One hundred and fifty years ago, there were no motorized vehicles, factories were not yet at the scale they are today, and massive oil sand projects were not even part of the fancy of any forward-thinking dreamer.  It defies logic to state that all of these engines running at full boil have no effect on the atmosphere.

This is where Ms. Wynne comes in.

We’re conditioned to pay $1.30 per litre for gasoline.  No one was picketing Ottawa or Queen’s Park in protest of high fuel prices.  With fuel prices are almost 40 cents per litre lower, Ms. Wynne has an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

Slap a 10 cent per litre tax on gasoline in Ontario.  This will help reduce the public’s appetite for fuel thirsty vehicles (bird number one). It will also spur sales of electric vehicles and hybrids.  Put every dime of it into public transit, all across Ontario.  Apportion the funds based on population, so no one area can accuse another of getting a bigger piece of the pie.  This takes care of bird number two; how to fund public transit when the appetite for new taxes is nil.

The reason this will work?  No one will notice.  The price of gasoline bears no relationship to the cost of getting a barrel of oil out of the ground.  Oil drilled right now will not hit the market for three months.  It takes time to transport it, refine it and ship it to gas stations.  We see knee-jerk reactions to the price of oil in the newspaper show up at the fuel pumps.  The price of a litre of gasoline in relation to the present price of a barrel of oil is a fiction.  For a head-spinning analysis of how the market looks, have a look at http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/weekly/.

The price goes up 10 cents.  It goes up 20 cents. It falls 15 cents.  We’re conditioned to volatility.

The reason this won’t work?  Ms. Wynne’s government is facing a deficit of around $11 billion dollars.  Millions will flow in from a gasoline tax.  It would likely prove irresistible to her ministers not to sidle up to the trough of new dollars to either pay down the deficit or fund new programs.

Imagine for a moment the benefits of properly funded transit.  Tunneling equipment would stay in the ground for new subway stations.  There would be no more debate about how to spend precious transit dollars, because the programs for expansion would be funded.  Toronto wouldn’t have to pick and choose, they’d just have to decide which plans get built out first.  Think of the jobs this would generate.  Picture the cars that would come off the road during rush hour.  Andy Byford, the CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, could double the number of new streetcars he wants to put on the rails.

Manufacturers have poured billions of dollars into EVs and hybrids, and are slated to add to this investment.  If no one buys the cars because gas is so cheap, we’re sentencing our atmosphere to a slow, painful death.

And, in that, us along with it.

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